Emmys 2011

09.06.11

‘Mad Men’ Up Close

Season 4’s ‘The Suitcase’ was instantly deemed a classic hour of TV. Show creator Matthew Weiner and star Jon Hamm offer an oral history of the gut-wrenching, Emmy-nominated episode.

Mad Men’s staggering fourth season featured more than a few memorable episodes, but perhaps none more so than the tour de force, “The Suitcase.” Written by creator Matthew Weiner and directed by Jennifer Getzinger, the episode finds Emmy nominees Jon Hamm and Elisabeth Moss's Don Draper and Peggy Olson spending the night at the office, as Don avoids making a phone call that would confirm the death of Anna Draper (Melinda Page Hamilton), the one person who truly knew him.

Nominated for an Emmy Award for outstanding writing, the episode—set against the backdrop of the Muhammad Ali/Sonny Liston fight—depicts Don and Peggy dancing a dangerous two-step with one another, as truths emerge, emotions pour out, and the two reaffirm their friendship in a silent and bittersweet moment.

The Daily Beast dissected with Weiner and Hamm six of the most powerful and indelible sequences from “The Suitcase,” the relationship between Don and Peggy, and Hamm’s performance, which Weiner called “magical.”

Peggy Stands Up to Don

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Matthew Weiner: Peggy standing up for herself is something that we’ve been waiting for, because Don’s been dismissive about her work at times… I’ve been Peggy and I’ve been Don in the work relationship. I worked for David Chase for four and a half years. I’ve been mostly Peggy in my career. 

Jon Hamm: Some Pete.

Weiner: And some Pete. But, I think that, that moment where Don sort of lets her have it about the work: “That’s what the money’s for!” It ends up cutting through to who she is as a person, her boyfriend, and her personal life. To me that’s a moment that… people who are in the workplace really can identify with; you’re spending your whole life there… You can run away from it or you can have the usual TV situation where everybody is best buddies, but it’s more complicated than that. 

From that scene on, where he makes her cry, where she says exactly what’s on her mind and he tells her that she doesn’t even have the right to think that… Don is in a more apologetic place... It makes him work to be closer to her. It makes him open up. They don’t want to admit it, but they don’t want to go… I’ve had more people tell me that that’s what they got out of the episode, besides how much they love these characters, was that it really was the first time that they’d ever seen that expression about work on TV or in a movie.

Don Asks Peggy About the Child She Gave Up

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Hamm: There was a moment in the bar when Don and Peggy are talking, and it was the first time, in a long time, that Peggy’s pregnancy and her child were brought up… I’m glad that it was brought up again by the writing staff, that this guy does know this about her. This thing did happen. They did have this experience that not everyone knows about… It comes up again, obliquely in the line, “Do you ever think about that?”  “Yeah, sometimes when I walk by playgrounds.” It’s a little bit of a heartbreaking moment for Peggy like, “Yeah. That was what might have been and this is what is.” Then the knockout happens.

Weiner: They’re just both shitfaced and listening to the fight, but the conversation… they can acknowledge that that happened. Even though they had sworn to never talk about it together, this is the place that they can talk about it. I also think that Don’s interest in it is really a big part of it. But, that’s an amazing scene. They’re amazing in that.

Duck and Don Come to Blows:

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Hamm: There are a lot of two person scenes in this episode and every one of them can be seen, in many ways, as a boxing match… Don does not like Duck ... There is a line where Don says, “You shouldn’t be here.” This is very much Don’s world, even more so this past season when it was basically all he had. So, when an interloper comes into that world, the response—especially if you’re shitfaced—is to throw a punch at it. Get it out. Physically remove it. Unfortunately he’s in no condition to do that, which is sad in its own way.

Weiner: There is a lot that Don hates about Duck, especially his alcoholism and his lack of understanding for creativity… I think that the idea that he’s been with Peggy, too, it’s almost like Duck is robbing him in some strange way… Forget that Peggy could be his daughter at that moment, but it’s a part of Don that he hates about himself.

The whole Muhammad Ali/Sonny Liston thing is confusing to us now because Ali is a cultural icon that is beloved [but] Don is betting on Liston. Liston is the one that he identifies with and Liston loses. The scene right before that is Don saying, “Get up, get up, get up.” It’s almost like Don is the champion and he’s suddenly becoming the underdog. He can’t get up. When he says, “uncle,” it’s amazing to me. You do not feel that Don has been humiliated in a way because the fight is so ridiculous… It’s not, “You’ve bested me and I’ve been embarrassed.” It’s just like, “I just don’t want to do this… I don’t want to fight anymore.” … It’s a humiliation, that thing with Duck.

The Ghost in the Room

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Hamm: I’ve lost very important people in my life who have come back to me in dreams and at very important times in my life, watershed moments... This is obviously something that’s very much on Don’s mind. He’s been given the note to call. He’s been putting it off and putting it off. He’s been stuffing it down... Until finally there’s no place else for it to go and it just all bubbles up. It’s heartbreaking in many ways. He realizes that this is the last time he’s going to see this woman is in this apparition. He comes to this moment of clarity, and realizes that he has to make this phone call and put this to rest, as it were. Put a final point on it. 

Weiner: Once the suitcase was in Anna’s hands, which was the last thing that was added to that script, you realize that it’s probably in Don’s mind because what is on his mind is his job. But it’s so symbolic… Every single person has heard some version of this story… when someone important has died, they have had a sense of premonition or visitation. People who don’t believe in this stuff at all: This is the way that it happens, because we’re somehow connected to each other. I always say, “OK, it’s a ghost. Fine, you think it’s something extraordinary. What about AM radio? That’s extraordinary. Cell phones are extraordinary. A connection to another human being should not be seen as extraordinary.”

While we’re handing out compliments to people, what [cinematographer] Chris Manley in particular did with [director] Jennifer [Getzinger] in that scene: the gradations of darkness, of afternoon into night into early morning, the way that they’re posed together, it just really made the whole thing work. The beauty of having the actress Melinda Page Hamilton come in and do it, if you look at it, she’s really doing something in that scene; she’s not just standing there like a cartoon.

Don Breaks Down in Front of Peggy

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Hamm: It doesn’t come out of nowhere. It comes out of watching the last five years of this guy’s life and how his family has imploded and his work has shifted so dramatically and his personal life is really in shambles. The one counterweight to all of that was California. Every time he went to California you could see that something changed in this guy. His hair was looser. His back wasn’t so rigid. It was just a completely different vibe when he was there. It was the one true connection to his past.

Weiner: He went out there and got baptized in Season 2.

Hamm: It is a culmination of a lot of things. I don’t want to say that it was easy to do on the day, because it wasn’t. It’s never that easy to get to any kind of crazily emotional place in your life, but even with Lizzy [Moss] there and having the experience of all that had happened previously in the season, we worked so hard. By Episode 8, everyone is starting to get exhausted. When we had those lines together, just looking at Elisabeth’s face, when I realized that she’s heard this entire phone call, how completely awash with emotion she was, it seemed like the only response to that was to just completely break down and let it all go. It’s a remarkable alchemy between writing, acting, directing, lighting, and everything else for them to make that a really nice moment.

Weiner: I love hearing the physical experience of a really gifted actor. That’s really what it is in the end. Your brain is going on hold at a certain point; you have to just give over that. That’s why there is so much athleticism in it. Also there is a huge sense of release... Don tricked [Peggy] into staying, but he couldn’t bring himself to tell her why she had to stay… Jon’s chemistry with the camera and the audience has allowed him to maintain this strength and still display emotions.

Don Holds Peggy’s Hand

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Hamm: The problem with sweeping things under the rug is that eventually you run out of rug. It’s not an unlimited resource… Holding her hand at the end of the episode is an incredibly nice callback to the pilot of the show, when Peggy awkwardly tries to make a pass at me by putting her hand on my hand and gets completely rebuffed. Then we see this connection again, 40-whatever episodes later. It’s not a sexual thing; it’s completely a supportive friendly, human gesture. I think we used to have a line—

Weiner: There was a line in there where you said, “Thank you,” and we cut it out.

Hamm: Which was the right call.

Weiner: The point is so much more powerful without it… At that big moment, you have a line in there, because you’re afraid that it won’t visually read… But we ended up taking the line out and when Jon and Lizzy both saw it—they didn’t see it until it was on the air. (I’m not hiding things from them; they’re working 24-hours a day.) They both separately said, “I’m so glad you took that line out.” To me, it was the nonverbal expression of intimacy: “We don’t have to talk about this, we both know.” Peggy says in the episode, “You’re not comfortable.” Don says it, too, “We don’t have to talk about anything. We don’t like to. We don’t like talking about things.”

So it was a way to pass on that this really happened… I never want to jam the audience’s face in the emotions. I felt that it was a way that the two of them would have expressed it. They did it so small, the work being in front of them, the newspaper, all of it.